When you’re close to death, they say, your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know about that. But I do know that when your loved one is dying, that’s what can happen to you.
At least it did to me.
You grasp at bits and pieces of memories, both recent and long ago, trying to hold on to whatever you can. Because that’s all you have left. And you keep grasping, as if searching for the lifeline that connected you to that person for as long as you’ve known him.
In my father’s case, it was all my life.
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David H. Provost passed away on Aug. 6 at the age of 86, having lived what almost anyone would describe as “a good, long life.” He married a wonderful woman (my mom), and they enjoyed a great life together for 39 years. He succeeded professionally, not only as a professor of political science but as a leader in the California State University system. He wrote a textbook. He influenced a lot of people, including some future political leaders.
But these were things I knew about my dad.
They weren’t what defined him, at least not to me. I wasn’t in the office with him when he was developing new programs for the state’s universities, and I wasn’t with him on the campaign trail when he ran for state Assembly. (Well, maybe I was for couple of months, technically speaking; that’s when my mom found out she was expecting.)
What I did see was the care and love he showed to my mother, a woman both frail and determined who had been paralyzed by polio on her right side. And I saw how he missed her after she died, all too soon, in 1995. He’d occasionally call to tell me of a dream he had, in which he’d seen her, still alive, only to wake up and find her gone.
I told him I’d had the same kind of dreams; I’ll probably have them about him now, too.
When a parent’s health starts declining, you gradually realize that there are some things they just won’t be able to do anymore. Dad and I used to go to football and basketball games together all the time. We’d watch movies together. We’d play ping pong. Over the last few years of his life, he couldn’t do those things anymore, and I missed it.
But even though I knew we’d never share those moments again, his passing nailed home the finality of it all — and made me realize how much I missed them.
That realization made me clutch at those memories all the tighter.
Memories, though, are never complete. Some seem as vivid now as yesterday projected on a movie screen in the back of our minds; others fade like the tendrils of a morning mist, burned away by the brightness of our busy lives.
What’s left are fragments. Bits and pieces of a reality that remains forever with us, yet also is, irretrievably, lost.
There are those photo albums of Dad’s trips abroad after he retired. A phone message he left that hadn’t been — and now won’t be — erased.
The dedication my wife, Samaire, made to him in her third book, was a testimony to both his enjoyment of her novels and the close relationship they shared during the past few years. I may be an only child, but I wasn’t the only one who lost a father.
But mostly, there are the memories. We are the keepers of these fragments, of lessons learned and imparted, of joys shared and sorrows endured. If anything about this life is sacred, to me, it is this task. If anything is essential, it is that we remember the past — not just to honor those who gave so much to convey us to this point on an eternal timeline, but because, as George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That quote was a favorite of my father’s, a man who — ironically, I suppose — lived a life many would have been proud to repeat.
I don’t pretend to understand death. People will tell you it’s part of the natural process, that the departed leave us for a better place. That they lived that good, long life.
All I can tell you is that death to me, in this present moment, seems the cruelest, most unnatural thing imaginable. It means the world has lost a wonderful resource, a font of reason and knowledge, an accomplished teacher.
But to me, it means something more personal. It means I’ll never be able to call or visit my dad and share the excitement of our team winning the big one; talk politics or the latest “Star Trek” movie; or just share what’s going on in our lives.
His accomplishments were impressive, but that personal touch is what I’ll miss the most.
More to the point, I’ll miss him, and I’ll keep clinging tenaciously to those fragments, wishing, impossibly, that I could somehow put them back together again.